Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Essential Collection - Woodstock

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) [10]

There is no doubt in my mind that without Woodstock the film, Woodstock the event would not have nearly the cultural cache it has enjoyed over the last forty years. Really, without the film, Woodstock would have probably been an afterthought of the hippie culture, a music festival where a lot of kids showed up, it rained, and almost everything else went wrong, from the throngs of people closing down roads, to not enough food, to bands going on at crazy times. It's a testament to Wadleigh's film that Woodstock and Woodstock are documents of a defining time in a culture that was essential to understanding America in the latter half of the 20th century. It's come to signify something a lot more than just a concert, just what is up for discussion, but there's no doubt that it's the power of cinema that made it so.

Woodstock is the greatest concert documentary ever made but for reasons other than its performances. Wadleigh clearly understood that something greater than a music festival was happening that weekend and he made sure to capture just as much of the surroundings and the people as the performers. There are some good to great performances in the film, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Ten Years After, and Joe Cocker among others. But there were nearly as many flat performances as good ones, due to bands often going on closer to daylight than midnight (even though there's a endearing interest in me for Jefferson Airplane's set at daybreak). The performance sequences are helped by the split screen format that Wadleigh adapted for much of the film. It works by allowing the film to cram as many different angles and as much action in the screen space as possible but it also helps intensify the performances. The edits and crowd shots during the Santana performance are practically flawless. It was a style that became imitated and adapted for many music documentaries that followed.

It can be argued that what Woodstock captured other than the music became the more important aspect of the film. What the film did that the press coverage really didn't do was cast a non-cynical eye on what exactly occurred. Clearly the film looks upon the young people with a sympathetic eye, and wants to capture just how peaceful and together the crowd was. What the film help emphasize and contribute to history was that Woodstock was something other than just a festival. Over the years the film has cemented the legacy of Woodstock and all its stands for in the cultural lexicon: how it was the high water mark for the counterculture and how that culture showed it can operate in less than stellar circumstances and operate the way they wanted. I feel some of this is just self-righteous Boomer nostalgia but there's no denying that a lot of shit went less perfect that weekend and how now, everybody that was there looks back with rose-colored glasses. That is more a testament to what the film achieved than what the event achieved because it cemented what Woodstock meant to the culture at large rather than just those who were there.

My favorite moment in the film is when a boy and a girl who hitchhiked to the festival are being interviewed. They're not even at the festival yet so the actual Woodstock experience means nothing here. What the interviewer asks are a series of broader questions that end with essentially, why did you come here? The guy answers that he, like many others, were looking for something. For what, he's not exactly sure but what he does know is that by coming here, maybe it would bring the answer, as was the case for many others. A scene like that shows the power that the music of that time had on the culture. That Woodstock and its acts was a representation of the mainstream youth culture of the late 60s is almost astounding to someone of my generation. I've been to Bonnaroo many times, which is the largest festival in this country but still essentially a niche festival. I guarantee two-thirds of the acts on a Bonnaroo bill would be unheard of by 8 out 10 people, even in my own age-group (18-34). There is no mainstream or unifying youth culture anymore. The Internet, while great in getting musical acts exposed, has fractured the music industry so much that something along the lines of Woodstock could never happen again. The meat head rape extravaganza of Woodstock '99 proved that. What may be Woodstock's greatest testament is that its belongs to an entire generation and not just an enlightened few.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Gigantic (Matt Aselton, 2009) [7]

I've made my preferences known on these so-called quirky indie comedies. I don't particularly care for them. So why do I like this one? I really don't have a great answer other than there are a handful of moments in this film I really did like. I didn't find it nearly as cloying cute and quirky as something like (500) Days of Summer. By no means is this a great film in terms of how its crafted and how its story is executed. It feels to me that Aselton has an emotional timbre in his writing and his directing that connect with me. All the pieces of Gigantic don't quite meld together perfectly but there's just something on a personal movie going experience that I identify with in the characters and Aselton as writer/director.

As for the story, Paul Dano plays Brian, a morose mattress salesman trying to adopt a child from China. One day the daughter of a man who bought a mattress from him comes in (Zooey Deschanel). She falls asleep in the store and that leads to a relationship and a series of events you could label quirky if you wish. The story goes back and forth from being not being entirely believable to being too constructed to create something between the characters. That Dano and Deschanel are so likable and effective in their characterizations that keep the flaws in the story from being too obvious. Deschanel once again plays the same type of character she always seems to play but then again, she's the reason why I'm watching these films. She plays Harriet not as just a perpetually quirky girl but someone with some real conflicts. There is a underlying melancholy and directionless in Harriet as there is in Brian and these two characters together seem to be the answer for each other. Deschanel also sells the character by bringing sly elements of sexiness to the role, such as casually asking Brian if he would like to have sex with her in a doctor's waiting room or the way she takes her earrings off and lets them clang to a pool deck (a really great moment by the way). As for Brian, perhaps the reason I can identify is that the character is a little too close to myself, other than the wanting to adopt a kid part. Dano is an actor I've never had any particular interest in but he has the perfect look and temperament for the role. Brian is a lonely guy with a dead-end career looking for some sort of connection. I guess if you happen to see something in a character like that, the film will appeal to you.

The film's best moments are between these two. The quirk factor comes in from supporting perform aces by John Goodman and Ed Asner among others. And then there's the Zach Galifinakis character, as a homeless man threatening and attacking Brian, taking everything out into left field for a couple of sequences. What to make of it? I was completely perplexed by it at first but after reading some other reviews, it's become pretty clear (I don't want to give any spoilers so I won't reveal it here). The series of encounters never really explain itself in the film and that could be a major reason why it could be seen as the film biggest flaw. The average filmgoer has been expected to have everything that they see on the screen explained in full for them. It is alright to have some ambiguity and let the audience figure it out. Aselton isn't required to tell you everything and there's something to be said in my book for the way he handles the story, leaving a lot of ends open. It creates the feeling that a lot of Gigantic was just a brief glimpse of two characters at a certain point.

I've made this point before that saying that there are certain elements that can override flaws in a film. One I've never really brought up is how an emotional reaction to a film can make something that may not be seen as very good to others important to you. There's only been a handful of films that have an emotional timbre that really makes an impression to me, Lost & Delirious and Night & the City being the two best examples. Gigantic is just going to be a film that I will get a lot more than other critics or viewers.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Monthly Listening Post - August 2009

I should really stop calling this the monthly listening post since I can't quite seem to keep it updated on a monthly basis. Since it has been so long, this month's list will be the five latest albums I've picked up.

Bowerbirds -
Upper Air
Elvis Costello -
Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane
Diane Birch -
Bible Belt
Roadside Graves -
My Son's Home (available only as mp3 download)
Jefferson Airplane -
The Woodstock Experience (2 disc set that contains Volunteers, as well as their entire Woodstock set.)

Lengthy, rambling reviews coming up for Gigantic as well as Woodstock, a week or so after I intended to post it.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) [6]

It's a testament to how shitty the romantic comedy genre is that a film that does anything out of convention gets big accolades. (500) Days of Summer certainly isn't a standard rom-com but it still has a lot of elements of that genre running through. Quirky characters, a non-linear structure, or a dance sequence to Hall & Oates isn't going to make it otherwise. One of the problems I have when trying to wrap up my thoughts on a film like this is how much I dislike film like these. Not dislike from being a romantic comedy but being another "off-beat" Fox Searchlight film that are supposedly indies but are just mainstream fare with something different. With the exception of the second half of Juno, I find these films to be nothing exciting, challenging, or interesting.

The one saving grace of (500) Days of Summer are the performances of its two leads: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Their characters and the situations around them are rooted in much of the cliches that make up the romantic comedy genre, but each give off enough likability that they let it pass. Gordon-Levitt especially, as the mopey dope who believes in true love, knows when to be subtle and reign in moments that easily could have been too much. Deschanel's performance is good mostly because she's been playing a variation of the same character in almost every other film she's in. And there are plenty of moments between the two that are cringe-worthy for someone like myself who doesn't like a lot of this stuff. Yet, through Webb's consistent handling of the characters and the material, there's just enough serious understanding and examination of relationships and what love means that make me not dislike it. Unlike most films of its sort, it tries to address the audience in an intelligent way about its story and characters. And for that, it deserves some credit.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2008) [5]

I don't feel this is nearly as bad as some of the reviews out there but I may be a bit biased because I am such a fan of Chabon's writing. The main problem here is that the film has sucked almost all the lyrical flow of the novel out and what's left is a fairly standard coming of age film. It's a testament to Chabon that he took such a hackneyed story and made something truly interesting out of it. Thurber is handcuffed by his medium and his own over-earnest portrayal of the material. Art, played blandly by Jon Forster, is a character that instead of seeing the film through his experiences, mostly is acted upon by everyone around him. It ends up creating a character that practically sucks everything interesting and enjoyable out of the film. Peter Sarsgaard's performance helps keeps much of it afloat as much as a supporting character can. It's only at the end, with some scenes between Art and Jane (Sienna Miller doing nothing much up to this point) that finally get some of Chabon's themes effectively done.

I admittedly had dreadful expectations for this seeing that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is one of my favorite novels and Thurber's only previous film was Dodgeball. He came into the film knowing the material and really tried to make a great film from a great book. That the film is so wrapped up in its a sense of overwrought obedience to the novel, it takes away much of the power of the written word. It creates a feeling that this film was the best anyone could have done with the material.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986

Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film 1947-1986) (Various Filmmakers)

All be told, this was a pretty underwhelming collection. Being a retrospective, there's going to be a wide range of filmmakers and styles present here, from the more abstract expressionist New York experimental film to less serious West Coast film to things that can't be categorized. There's a lot of big names here: Brakhage, Jacobs, Warhol, Baillie, Cornell, Land, Frampton, and Shartis. The problem with the collection as a whole may be that by trying to be an all-encompassins showcase, there's never any thematic continuity to the work. It's a little difficult to move from the abstract animations of Robert Breer to something along the lines of Warhol or Land. I believe to really understand experimental film, you've got to see more than one film of a filmmaker or have an in-depth discussion of that work. Watching these by yourself in your home leaves no where to turn to really figure out what's behind these works. Besides that, on a personal level, I find a lot of what's on these discs not all to great. The standout films on this collection were (nostalgia) by Hollis Frampton (which I've seen many times before), I, An Actress by George Kuchar, and Go! Go! Go! by Marie Menken. The Brakhage and Jacobs are films I'd hadn't seen but found them not quite my favorite of their works. Other filmmakers such as Owen Land, Bruce Baillie, Standish Lawder also have some interesting selections here but I would like to see more of their work to get a little better understanding. Even with all its flaws, the collection has to be commended for at least getting experimental work out on DVD and hopefully to more people.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970) [6]

In my opinion, not quite top notch Antonioni and certainly not an accurate portrayal of the counterculture. It's hard to try to portray what Zabriskie Point actually is other than a curiosity. The film's strongest scenes are its critique of American consumer capitalism. These are exceptional scenes on a more formal level. If I could base my opinion on just those elements alone, it would be a near exceptional film. It's when Antonioni attempts to tie in the counterculture movement, the film becomes ineffective. The two main characters are certainly Antonioni characters, yet they are out of place in the movement they're supposed to embody. It all ends up creating a final film that has its moments but has no real connection to the audience it was meant to find. Time has rendered some of the initial negativity to the film mute. The point could be made now that the film was never meant the type of counterculture youth film like Easy Rider. It's valid in regards to Antonioni and his work but there's no denying that it's examining a group of people that he really doesn't know them the way he might think. It still feels too out of touch with the actual reality of the times.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Backlog Update

There will be some new reviews coming shortly.